For Minghella's 'Breaking,' no city but London
By Martin A. Grove
Jan 19, 2007
Minghella movie: Most movies these days could just as easily take place in a city other than the one they're set in, but that's definitely not the case with Anthony Minghella's "Breaking and Entering."
"Breaking," a co-production of The Weinstein Company and Miramax Films, opens via TWC in New York on Jan. 26 and in Los Angeles and other top 10 markets Feb. 7. The R-rated drama starring Jude Law, Juliette Binoche and Robin Wright Penn is set in London's King's Cross district, which is a key element in its story. The film's plot revolves around conflicts stemming from the gentrification of King's Cross.
Historically one of the city's poorest neighborhoods, the northern London area called King's Cross has in the last few years seen the arrival of immigrants from a wide range of troubled countries in Europe, Africa and the Middle East. With the district's recent redevelopment and upgrading these "have-nots" are now finding well-to-do young British professionals or "haves" encroaching on their terrain. Not surprisingly, property crime in King's Cross is one of the results. It's a storyline that's very specific to London and wouldn't work if the film's setting had shifted instead to cities like New York or L.A. or Chicago.
"Breaking," which was shot in London and at Elstree Studios during the summer of 2005, was produced by Minghella, Sydney Pollack and Timothy Bricknell for Mirage Enterprises, Minghella and Pollack's production company. It's the first original screenplay by Minghella, a best directing Oscar winner for "The English Patient," to be produced since his 1991 feature debut "Truly Madly Deeply." Minghella's also a two-time Oscar nominee for best adapted screenplay for "Patient" and "The Talented Mr. Ripley."
In the film Law plays a landscape architect partnered in a studio called Green Effect that's located in King's Cross. After the firm's offices are broken into repeatedly and valuable computer equipment has been stolen a number of times, Law becomes obsessed with catching the burglars. This in turn leads him to meet Binoche's character, a Bosnian woman who's fled to London with her son, who's one of those responsible for the break-ins. That, in turn, impacts on Law's already difficult relationship with Wright Penn's character, a beautiful Swedish American woman with a very troubled 13- year-old daughter.
After enjoying a look at "Breaking," I was happy to be able to catch up with Minghella on Wednesday to talk about the making of the film. "Part of the yearning for me to make this movie was connected with a very strange thing that happened to me," he pointed out. "Making movies in the last decade has been about going on a journey, literally like going on a military campaign where you say, 'Okay, I'll see you in a year. I'm going to be in North Africa. Or, I'm going to be in Italy.' With 'Cold Mountain' I was in Romania for a year. And I wanted very much to go home and make a movie about London and about the London that I live in and I love. So it couldn't have been set in any city because it's so specifically a kind of observation of the part of London that I know fairly well. Though, having said that, ironically one of the things that kept frightening me when I was trying to make this movie set now in a place that I live in was how little I know about places like this and how complex the truth has become.
"Sometimes I look at London in movies and it looks so romanticized and other times I look at London in movies and it's so somber and depressing and dispiriting to look at. And, of course, in reality a city like London is all things at all times, whatever you want to happen is happening somewhere in London. Whatever you want to look at you can look at somewhere in London. It's very much a London that creates itself uniquely for each person, I think, sometimes for the good and sometimes for the bad."
When I observed that you wouldn't see this kind of gentrification of neighborhoods and the resulting mingling of haves and have-nots in L.A. or in Manhattan, he replied, "Well, London is a very, very specific city in the sense that in London you pass through so many types of life, types of culture, types of belief systems and languages. It isn't so striated in other cities where there's a quarter where this kind of life being lived and a quarter where that kind of life (is being lived). It's all jumbled up together so that on a single street you can get a $5 million house next door to a project. It's a kind of chaotic reflection of where we've got to in civilization because, of course, cities are the clearest illustrations of what a society has achieved and what it's problems are. And London is a sort of triumph and a failure
Minghella, himself, had experienced at his own offices in London a few years ago a similar type of break-in to the one he shows us in "Breaking." "What happened is that I tried to write many years ago a story called 'Breaking and Entering,' which was an idea about how a marriage would be affected by a burglary," he told me. "I had two or three periods of writing and I could never quite get the story to make sense to me. I had an idea but I couldn't quite articulate it. And then when we were in Romania (shooting 'Cold Mountain') we were also renovating our offices in London. During that renovation period when there were contractors on the site and it was a bit more vulnerable we had a number of break-ins. It wasn't so much the fact of the break-in as the repercussions of the break-in because I had to meet with the police, I had to meet with Official Services, I had to meet with a lot of the facilities in North London, the people who deal with crime and who deal with crime prevention and social exclusion."
In doing so, he noted, "I met such an interesting bunch of people that it reminded me of the original idea and I got very intrigued by the notion of conciliation, which is a kind of buzz word in London crime prevention right now, (involving) how to bring victims of crime and criminals into the same room and discuss (matters). It sounds preposterous, but actually the more I thought about it and the more I met the people the more intrigued I was and the more theatrical it seemed to me. I got fixated on how to tell a story in which maybe all of the characters would be forced to finally confront each other in a room, but that some great good would come from it -- a second chance, some conciliation would come from it.
"Conciliation's going to become a big word for us in the years to come because we're living in a time where people are not conciliatory and it's causing (major problems worldwide). I think that if this film has a message it is that there is some value in conciliating each other and trying to make peace with each other and to recognize that we've all got stories that (are the reason for) the way that we are and that we need to listen to those stories and try to find a way to be together and to reconcile."
Asked when he started to write this version of "Breaking," he said, "I suppose that I was thinking about it during the time of 'Cold Mountain' very much. I was in New York during 9/11. I was downtown and I began to think a lot about -- or experience a lot -- the idea of what cities are like when they start to go wrong. In some ways they get fractured where you become suddenly conscious of others in a way. You feel like the cocktail of cultures and countries that co-exist in a single city do so harmoniously. When there's some sort of rupture then you become conscious of how slender the thread of peace and harmony is. So that got me thinking. But, also, because I come from a migrant family I've got a real interest in how cities like London and New York require migration to function. Without a strong underclass or secret class of migrant workers these cities simply wouldn't work. And yet, by the same token, we find it very hard to tolerate migration. We get very nervous of it in times of stress. But it's such an interesting and urgent story to tackle and it seemed to me like a very necessary one."
When Minghella is writing, is his writer self in touch with his director self? "That's a very, very good question," he replied. "I would say that we're all separate. But there's a very big difference between the adaptor of a novel and the writer of an original film. I think the writer is not in service to the director, as it were. The writer is a much more romantic character than the director. Directors can be dreamers, but they have to be very practical as dreamers because they're going to end up having to collect information on film. So there's a kind of organizational, logistical mind that has to go to work as well as the creative (mind). The writer has heavy responsibility for making something from nothing, but also tends to be much more romantic and much more irresponsible in some ways. I certainly don't try and behave myself when I'm writing and, of course, I'm forced to try and behave myself when I'm directing."
Of course, writers can write whatever comes into their heads -- the classic example is, 'The cavalry rides over the hill' -- and directors are then left with having to figure out how to bring that short line to life and make it fit the budget they have to work with. "I think when you say do they pay attention to each other, of course you can't help but know that you're going to direct (the film you're writing)," Minghella replied. "You're the director on the first day (and) you're the writer on the last day. We're kidding each other (talking about the writer-director as being separate people). It's a game we're playing. You know, I wrote in 'Cold Mountain' '4,000 soldiers run into a hole' and I knew that was a big ask (by) the writer.
"I think the one thing that was very odd for me about writing 'Breaking and Entering' was that I had an idea about King's Cross and an office in King's Cross and I thought I knew where it was and then when I came to make the film I realized that the development in King's Cross was moving so quickly that that whole neighborhood had already gone. Films take time to write and develop and by the time I'd written and got ready to shoot a lot of the neighborhood had already gone because it was moving and changing so quickly. We couldn't make that film today because already it's changed another year. It's been gentrified by another year and the work that we see Jude Law and his character working on (involving) these big construction sites, they're mostly finished by now. So, again, it's a movie that just captures one moment in time. It's not a story you could tell again in that particular way and that particular place."
While he was writing did Minghella have Law or any of the other cast members in mind to play these characters? "I'd like to say yes, but actually, of course, when I'm writing I find myself in a much more abstract state," he said. "I don't think, 'Okay, I'll write this part for Jude and this part for Juliette and (another one) for somebody else.' To me it's much more like dreaming. You can't elect who enters your dreams. I wrote people and then I tried to find the best actors like Jude to inhabit them. Of course, once you know who's playing the part the writing process continues and it's certainly the case that once I had Robin and Juliette and Jude I did a lot of constant updating to try to make the movie fit them personally."
One of the changes Minghella made in his own screenplay when it came time to cast the role played by Wright Penn was to make her Swedish American rather than Swedish, as originally written. "It would have been more of a stretch than was necessary for the movie (to keep the character purely Swedish)," he explained. "Whereas, I had to keep Juliette from Bosnia because the whole point of the story was that she was somebody by Sarajevo and a political refugee. So I couldn't have generalized that in any way, but Robin's nationality was not was significant except that I wanted a sense of that strange Scandinavian melancholy. I think it's very extraordinary and vivid. And Robin, herself, is so closed and secret. That's the connection for me.
"Somehow the warmer the climate, the more open the psychological gestures are, the colder (the climate) the more closed they are. So I wanted this sense of a woman who'd been brought up in the cold and the dark and was very pale and then another woman who was very open and generous and in touch with herself and that caused its own problems. You know, you go on these expeditions and you find the right people to help you realize them."
Law, who does so many different kinds of films and plays such a wide range of roles in them, comes across quite well in "Breaking." "This is the third time in a row that I've worked with Jude," Minghella noted, referring to "The Talented Mr. Ripley" and "Cold Mountain." "He's never let me down. I feel like this is the most adult of the performances he's done and the most mature. He and I are very close friends. We live in the same neighborhood, which is where the movie is set. There's a lot of his own world and characteristics (in his performance) and I thought he certainly did very, very well and I am delighted with him."
Law's landscape architect character is an advocate for Green Effect, a movement that doesn't believe in using grass or greenery or flowers as decoration, but sees the use of things like buildings, paving, walls and roads as better ways to design open public spaces. As believable and interesting a concept as that appears to be, I discovered in talking to Minghella that there actually is no Green Effect school of landscape design.
"It's completely made up," he pointed out. "I made it up, but then what's happened is oddly enough it's beginning to have its own moment now. Somebody's asked if I'd give a talk about Green Effect. I know a lot of architects in London. I'm interested in architecture. I met a lot of architects while I was doing this film and I wrote the manifesto (about Green Effect for the film's press notes). And then it attracted the attention of some writers about architecture. It's sort of having its own funny little life, the Green Effect."
Filmmaker flashbacks: From Dec. 15, 1988's column: "When I asked MCA Motion Picture Group chairman Tom Pollock how he was Monday he replied, understandably, 'I'm on top of the world!' And why not? Not only had Universal's 'Twins' just opened to a giant $11.2 million, but it's the fifth consecutive film the studio has opened in first place at the boxoffice, following 'Moon Over Parador,' 'Gorillas in the Mist,' 'They Live' and 'The Land Before Time ...'
"'Twins,' which Ivan Reitman produced and directed and which stars Arnold Schwarzenegger and Danny DeVito, accounted for about one-third of the industry's boxoffice gross last weekend. ...What accounts for 'Twins'' success? 'It is a combination of many things,' he replied. 'It always was a great concept. It made you laugh just thinking about it -- Arnold and Danny as twins -- because they are having fun with their images of themselves. And since they're having such a good time about it, it promises that the audience will have a good time.
"'Secondly, I think we came up with a really top-notch campaign. David Sameth, our head of creative advertising, came up with the idea of switching names (under the stars' photos and the copyline) 'Only their mother can tell them apart,' as if to imply that our marketing department can't tell them apart. It created the right attitude about the film -- that it was fun and that we were having fun with it and, therefore, the audience would have fun with it. It sold the concept well.'
"A third factor in 'Twins' success, Pollock emphasizes, was that both Schwarzenegger and DeVito worked very had to promote the picture. 'They went out and did 200 interviews -- television shows, magazine articles, Carson, 'West 57th Street,' '20/20,' practically everything you can think of -- to help promote this film. They worked their tails off and I cannot tell you how important that is. It paid off. They were everywhere.
"'They've traditionally supported their movies, but we had an unusual arrangement on this film where they took no money and a very big piece of the back end. So they have a major incentive to work really hard and they know it ...' Insiders put 'Twins' production cost at about $14 million. Pollock notes only that its cost 'was very moderate, well below the so-called industry average (of about $18 million), but because the film will be successful they'll all earn a great deal more money than they would have earned.'"
Update: "Twins" went on to gross $111.9 million domestically, making it 1988's fifth-biggest film at the boxoffice. It also did about $105 million more in international theaters, giving it a worldwide cume of nearly $217 million.